In summer 1946, Commander Gordon McGowan headed a small group that went to Germany to bring the prize back to the Academy. McGowan found the Eagle an abandoned derelict and painstakingly restored her to health. Then he sailed her home to the United States. Her sails in shreds, she arrived in New London in July 1946, with just a few cups of fuel oil in her tanks. She had survived an intense hurricane, and again she sprang back to life. Sails were fabricated in the Academy rigging loft, backstays and rigging were tested and renewed as needed, and German nameplates were translated. Her three-piston, auxiliary engine, now renamed Elmer, was left in place. Elmer was enough to guide the Eagle in and around ports; the ship would sail the rest of the way on the long hauls.
My first acquaintance with the Eagle came in 1952, when I reported to New London as the new law instructor. I had finished a tour of postgraduate training in law, but I still loved going to sea. I looked at the Eagle , sitting wintered and quiet at the Academy pier, and thought: "I'd love to sail that ship." Though she was deserted—with tall masts, slushed-down yards, a maze of blocks and tackle, some snow on her decks—she looked strong and purposeful. That was the start of a happy association.
I sailed in the Eagle as commandant of cadets on cadet cruises in summer and taught court-martial law to cadets in winter. I sailed two years with Captain Carl Bowman, a salty ex-aviator sailor, who had lived on a sailboat for years and knew more about marlinspike seamanship and sailing than I ever would. I sailed two more years with Captain Carl Otto August von Zeitel, who had emigrated from Germany as a kid and who deciphered the German operating instructions.
After a six-year hiatus, in 1962 I came back to the Academy as head of the professional studies department, which was then a two-hatted job: academic in winter, skippering the Eagle in summer—the best job I ever had. On my first trip, we went on the usual clockwise tour of Europe, following the northeast trades. On the second, we rendezvoused in Bermuda for the Sail Training Association's tall ship race to New York City, followed by Operation Sail.
As the world celebrates Operation Sail 2000 this summer, among my flood of memories is a particular one of 36 years ago, that first Operation Sail in New York Harbor. Founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1961—two years before his assassination—as a showcase for sail training as a link among nations, the first OpSail was quite a spectacle, even though it would be a mere shadow of what is taking place in 2000.
In concert with the 1964 World's Fair and after three years of preparation, 23 tall ships, including my Eagle , had powered in a dense fog to Gravesend Bay anchorage, fog horns sounding, on 13 July, the night before the event was to begin. By the next morning, the scheduled start of OpSail 1964, the fog had cleared. Anchor chains came in, cadets scrambled aloft, sails began to bloom, and the stately armada began to move.
The entire flotilla, led by the Eagle , cruised first along Coney Island shore, then out across the lower harbor to Staten Island. I remember the beautiful Statue of Liberty in the sunshine. We then sailed back and along Governor's Island, which was then exclusively a Coast Guard base. It was still early morning, but crowds already lined the shores and cheered their ships. It was a great moment.
As the column turned slowly into New York Harbor, then the Hudson River, the huge crowd had swelled to millions. Horns and whistles blew. Spectators lined the banks of Manhattan and New Jersey, hollering and waving, as ships of their particular nations sailed by proudly, all sails set, colors flying. The column proceeded north in the Hudson River and under the George Washington Bridge. There, the ships did a slow 180° turn and came back. With sails aback and auxiliary engines chugging away quietly, we made a great sight for the people ashore, and we were happy to keep up the sails and oblige. The 23 ships from 13 different countries were separated by an interval of 500 yards or so each, a long, beautiful line, under full sail.
In the early afternoon, the armada melted back toward Manhattan and Brooklyn, the ships proceeding under power and furling their sails. Thousands of New Yorkers visited the ships of their home ports and drank toasts to their flags. The Eagle , despite her punch and cookies, had the lion's share of visitors—some 30,000.
The party spread to the top of Manhattan that night. Then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller had invited tall-ship captains to a gala OpSail party. Next morning, cadets marched in an OpSail parade through lower Manhattan. After New York City, the tall ship regatta moved separately to various East Coast ports. Ultimately, the majestic Eagle sliced into the St. Lawrence River, all the way to Quebec City.
Though now an elderly gentleman, I still love ships; tall ships appeal to me particularly. They have captured the American psyche. I could sense this when I was in command of the Eagle ; now, I'm sure of it.
Each summer sees gatherings of tall ships, both U.S. and European, in both U.S. and European ports. The Eagle , now energized and re-engined and sporting that beautiful Coast Guard stripe, is much in demand. The Coast Guard is besieged with requests for port visits. She has become America's sweetheart.
Captain Earle, a frequent contributor to U.S. Naval Institute publications, resides in Melbourne, Florida.